An encore for mama
By Joanne Meyer • Guest Columnist
A soft, spring breeze wafted through the open window, sending a sheer, cafe curtain dancing across the strings of a mandolin leaning upright against the back of a chair. The sound the instrument produced had a startling but enchanting allure. It spoke to me in a voice I had not heard in a long time.
It was the gentle, lyrical voice of my father. The refreshing change of air kindled my memory and uplifted me with thoughts of family, music and love. I felt my father’s presence and wondered if his mandolin would ever sing again.
A few months later, after attending a bluegrass festival, where mandolins mixed beautifully with fiddles, banjos and other mountain instruments, I was inspired to take my inherited treasure to a music store to have it restrung and tuned. While there, I was given the name of a music instructor who could teach me the rudiments of the instrument. I made a phone call and was soon enrolled as a beginning student.
The first day in music class that October was a lesson in humility. My 30 minutes of pain followed that of a young violinist named Missy who couldn’t have been more than 5 years old but already knew how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I remember thinking that the strings of the violin must be easier on the fingers than the strings of the mandolin. Double strings, double trouble, double pain was the way I thought of it. My instructor said I’d be OK after my calluses formed. No sympathy was offered. “Everybody goes through this,” she said with half a smile.
The music studio was geared to young students. In one corner, a fully decorated Christmas tree shared space with a small sofa, an upright piano and two guitars. Paper cutouts in bright colors, more in tune with Halloween than Christmas, adorned the walls. A music stand, a recording machine and a stool for the instructor were crammed on the other side of the room, next to a second piano, a baby grand. Children with fiddles appeared and disappeared, before and after their lessons, some trying to produce joyful sounds, others going through the motions in duress, complaining that their arms ached from the repetitive bowing action the instrument requires.
Nobody said their fingers hurt.
As the only adult student, it was a matter of pride and stubbornness that kept me focused. After all, if little children could play recognizable music on the violin, surely I could handle “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Silent Night” on the mandolin. My teacher hoped I could play some Christmas songs by the first part of December. My goal was to be able to play one or two of my father’s favorite songs for my mother at her surprise 85th birthday party in January.
After the second lesson, it became clear to me that some of the songs I wanted to play would be more difficult than I had imagined. I was given scales to practice, two more Christmas songs and a tape of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to follow along with in several rhythmic patterns. A piece of cake, I thought, and it was.
Learning chords for lessons three and four proved most difficult, however, as my fingertips were still tender. To ease the pain of practice, I sought to impress my instructor by playing some music I already knew by ear. The teacher was pleased with that but remained on task, assigning more scales, more chords and “The Minuet in G” by J.S. Bach. Since I didn’t know the Bach piece, my instructor had me just where she wanted me — reading music. I figured it out by the fifth lesson, but it still wasn’t flowing and did not have a minuet sound to it. Nevertheless, my teacher encouraged me to keep working at it. She handed me more sheet music — the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria,” as well as the more melodic Schubert version. I think she wanted me to pray and play at the same time, figuring one would help the other. Eventually, my renditions of these pieces were recognizable, even to my husband’s untrained ear.
Now it was time to call my brother who plays guitar and tell him that I was almost ready to play some of Dad’s favorites, including “Never on Sunday” and “Lara’s Theme.” As it turned out, Gene had not played the guitar in quite some time and was rusty, he said. Undaunted, I packed the mandolin in the trunk of the car when we left for Connecticut that January.
The surprise birthday party was a huge success and Mom talked about it for weeks afterward. But there was no live music that night. A mandolin and a guitar sat silently in my brother’s spare bedroom waiting for more practice.
Another meeting between my father’s mandolin and my brother’s guitar took place the following July on the front porch of my home in the mountains of Western North Carolina. This time the music began to flow. And, there was an audience. Some of the neighbors came. Although no music awards were given that night, the tunes were more than recognizable and were applauded by a small but appreciative gathering. When my brother’s visit was over, we promised each other we would continue practicing for our next gig — Mom’s 90th birthday.
It is my hope that firm calluses on deft fingers will enable me to fulfill a goal I set for myself soon after a spring breeze touched a chord in my heart. Perhaps, Gene and I will evoke Dad’s memory when the family gathers in celebration. I believe his spirit will guide us in providing a rewarding musical experience for my mother.
My father’s mandolin will sing again ... for my mother. Someday, we will all hear him playing again, somewhere, in another place.